The 5 Tactical Steps I Tell Everyone On How to Get a Job At a Startup
When I was thinking about leaving my job at Bain and transitioning into tech—well, startups—I had two major questions:
1. What would my role be? 2. How do I break in?
And since I’ve moved to San Francisco, countless friends and former coworkers looking to make the same leap have asked me those same two questions.
My path was a little different. I got my first tech job while I was still at Bain when a friend of mine from high school convinced me to move west and join the company he had started. No in-depth job search needed. That said, I have now helped numerous friends make the transition from consulting into tech, and through those experiences I have honed a strategy that works.
The information outlined below is not novel. You will find similar advice elsewhere on the web. But it’s all tailored for high achievers, and made as clear and actionable as possible.
Which is not to say it’s all-encompassing, nor the only proven method. It’s an outline that offers best practices, which you could adapt based on your own knowledge, connections or intuition.
Here are the five steps you should take when going from consulting to a startup:
1. Find the companies.
Most startups fail. So when you’re looking for a company to work for, you should take the same approach as a VC--find a team and an idea that you believe in, while also filtering for a culture you’ll enjoy and thrive in for however long the startup runs for.
Make a prioritized list of the companies that you are most interested in. Start with 50 that stand out, and then research the hell out of them.
While there is no way to know which startups will ultimately survive, there are tools available that can signal potential. In addition, there are a number of startup-specific job sites that can help you find diamonds in the rough. Here’s a list of sites I recommend you use:
AngelList: Almost every startup on the planet is on AngelList. This is a great resource for finding early stage startups that haven’t gotten much attention yet, as well as information on more familiar names. In addition to the main site, here is a link to an exported spreadsheet of the 16,000+ current companies on the site. You can use it to filter opportunities and learn more about the founders
Venture Capital Firms: On every VC firm’s website, you can find a list of their portfolio companies. Some, like Sequoia, even have their own internal job boards. High profile firms—Kleiner Perkins, NEA, First Round, Andreesen Horowitz, and Founder’s Fund, Bain Cap Ventures, among others—tend to invest in high performing teams, so their portfolio lists can help you separate wheat from chaff. What’s more, they’re often broken out by sector, making it easier to look for a startup in a certain industry.
Startup Incubators: Similarly, top incubators and accelerators often list their portfolios, which can give you a sense of some hot early stage companies. Y Combinator is the most selective accelerator in the world; meanwhile, 500 startups, Techstars, Angelpad, and a handful of other accelerators are also considered Tier 1. There are also vertical specific accelerators such as Rockhealth and Imagine K12, which can help you find early-stage companies in a specific vertical.
Crunchbase: The IMDb for startup companies. This site is the first place I turn to when I’ve identified a company and want to understand who the team is, when they got funded and what they do.
Mattermark: A premium service that allows you to filter through companies based on very specific search parameters such as company size, funding rounds, growth trajectory, or location. It mainly targets enterprise customers, but if that’s what you’re interested in, it could be an extremely useful resource. Last I checked, it starts at $49/month for the lowest tier. Take advantage of the two-week trial before you commit.
Breakout list: An annual list of the top start-ups that are on the verge of “breaking out.” This list is compiled by surveying investors and is well-known in San Francisco. The website also offers valuable advice on getting hired, as well as career tips from business-tech gurus like Sheryl Sandberg and Sam Altman.
Once you have a compiled a list of companies you are interested in, you can organize them into a spreadsheet to track your progress as you funnel the list down to your top picks, or use a tracking program like Hirepool.
Click here to download my application tracking spreadsheet.
2. What are the roles for me?
What’s critical to understand is that startup structures are starkly different from consulting or investment firms. While the roles at consulting firms focus on strategy, roles at startups are more functional. When I say functional, I mean that there is a specific operational task that the person in a given role needs to complete on a regular basis. It is what allows the company to actually do what it offers.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is a huge difference between early stage startups (pre-Series A, 10-30 people), growth startups (between Series A and Series C, 30- 150 people) and later-stage startups (post-Series C, 150+ people).
Early-stage startups don't usually have product-market fit, which means that the job you get hired for may not be the job you are doing even just two or three months down the road. Early-stage companies hire for “athletes”—people who are sharp, willing to get their hands dirty and are comfortable changing focus quickly.
There are a lot of resources and articles out there about the types of roles, but going through all of that is a task for another post.
3. Network via a connection.
The first thing you should know is that applying online or dropping your resume does not work anymore. Companies are overwhelmed by the volume of submissions. Blame spammers.
That’s why using your network can make all the difference. But even if you’re new to the startup world, I guarantee that you will be shocked at how many connections you already have in it. I’ll assume you already know networking basics, so here are some actionable, tech-specific tips.
I have tapped into three major networks:
For example, when I came to San Francisco, I discovered there were a large number of former Bain employees who had high-level roles in startups and were willing to talk to me about their transition into tech.
But you shouldn’t limit yourself to your old firm. For example, if you worked in consulting at Bain, take it a step further and reach out to other former consultants (Mckinsey, BCG, Deloitte, etc.) who have a shared background and experience.
If you are at the earliest stages of your job search and you simply want informational interviews, I highly recommend using LinkedIn's University Alumni Portal, or clicking the "People" tab and doing a search for all former employees from your old company.
The University Alumni tool is a particularly well designed and underused LinkedIn feature that makes it incredibly easy for you to find alumni who live in the city you are looking to work in and at companies that are interesting to you.
Note: I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you sign up for LinkedIn Premium. For $50 a month, Premium increases your access to critical networking and job conversations. Even for frugal people like me, it’s a worthwhile investment. Plus, there’s a one-month free trial.
When you move from general networking to targeting specific companies, here are the three steps I recommend to find contacts and generate interviews:
1. Find a "Company Page" on LinkedIn.
2. Click on "People" to see all of the employees at that company.
3. Filter the list of employees for 1st or 2nd degree connections, or for alumni from your alma mater/past employer.
Once you have found a contact(s) you have a connection with, it's time to reach out.
In my opinion, the best way to get in touch with a new connection is by email, which you can usually find with the below tools:
If this doesn’t work, you can always still contact a person by connecting with them on LinkedIn and sending a LinkedIn message or using InMails via your premium subscription.
Note: If the person you are trying to reach is someone with whom you have a mutual connection, ask your friend for an intro. This is much more effective for starting conversations than cold outreach. Make it as easy for your friend to say yes but make sure not to burn your social capital.
Once you’ve got this process down, you will start to be flooded with new conversations. The next critical step is turning those conversations into meetings and interviews.
4. Follow up - again, and again - and again.
It might feel like a win when a high-value contact returns your message, but you won’t be on the road to a job offer until you sit down with the person.
Here are a few tips to make sure your initial intros don’t fall through the cracks:
Pro-Tip #1: Be aggressive, but friendly. If you email someone and they don’t respond, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. More likely, they are busy. Reply to your original email a week later with a simple message saying you know they are busy and you wanted to check back in. Oftentimes the second or third follow-up is far more successful than the first.
I take the approach of being casual and personal, though others feel more comfortable being more formal.
Most companies that I now work with did not respond until I sent multiple follow-ups. I wouldn't have had the business had I not kept at it. But be strategic—you can automatically schedule reminders for your outreach with software like Mixmax.
Likewise, if someone does respond, only to fall off during your scheduling process, don’t give up. Keep emailing every few days until they respond with a time to meet.
Pro-Tip #2: Busy business executives don’t have time to go back and forth on scheduling. Tools like Calendly can help simplify all your scheduling, taking the hassle out of the process for you and the person you are contacting.
Pro-Tip #3: If the person you reached out to is senior enough, he or she will likely refer you to their Executive Assistant for scheduling. Be kind and build rapport with this person--they hold the keys to the proverbial kingdom.
5. Prep and Succeed.
The final step for landing a tech role is sometimes the most daunting: acing your interviews. This is another topic that deserves an entire post of its own—stay tuned for that. For now, I am going to focus on how to properly prepare for informational and job interviews.
You should ALWAYS know these six things about a startup before meeting someone who works there:
1. What does the product do at a high level? (Check their website).
2. What's their total # of employees? (Check LinkedIn)
3. How much funding have they received? (Check Crunchbase)
4. What job openings do they have? (Check their careers page)
5. What is the structure of their team? (Check LinkedIn / their about us page)
6. What customers do they work with? (Check their website and case studies)
Here are some things about the individual you are speaking with that you should also look into before your meeting:
1. How long have they been working at the company?
2. What did they do beforehand?
3. What are some common connections you share with them? Do you have any stories about mutual connections you can share?
4. Do they have a personal website or do they blog? Did they publish any recent articles on LinkedIn that demonstrate their interests/passion?
I've had several VERY smart candidates get rejected because they went into interviews without doing their homework. Winging it isn’t smart—it just makes you seem sloppy. And you don’t want anyone walking away from meeting you thinking they wasted their time.
You should also take care to consider how you are framing your questions and statements.
Good: "I saw on Techcrunch you raised your last round in July--is this your most recent funding and what has changed about the company/team since?"
Bad: "How much money have you raised?"
This shows that you’re curious about their company and team. You'd be surprised at how many people ask this question...
After a successful meeting there are some final steps you should take to close the loop on your discussion:
Always follow up with a thank you. After anyone takes time out of their day to meet with you, whether for an informational interview or a real interview, send them a short email thanking them for their time. Be sure to personalize it to further demonstrate your attention and interest.
Agree on next steps. It is up to you to ensure that the process continues to move forward. Ask about what the next steps are. See if there are other people that would be good for you to meet with. Show that you are interested, and want to continue forward with the discussions.
When appropriate, make requests. If someone offered any sort of help, your email follow-ups should circle back to that with requests for follow-through. Provide them with everything they need to make the intro whether that is your resume, a link to your LinkedIn profile, or something else. The lower the barrier for them to make good on their offer, the better.
Hopefully this post will reduce some of the uncertainty surrounding how someone should go about breaking into the startup world—and hopefully it won’t seem so challenging. Remember, the bulk of the process is about understanding how the startup world works, meeting the right people, and being prepared and professional in your conversations. If you have that down, you have what you need to execute.